Archive for December, 2003

Ten Blogs That Shook the World

I’ve had a chance to read the article I mentioned yesterday, “Parking Lott: The role of Web logs in the fall of Sen. Trent Lott,” and the writer, Chris Wright, does make a strong case that blogs were instrumental in turning up the heat on Lott after he praised the segregationist politics of Strom Thurmond. I’m still inclined to use a little caution about how crucial they really were in this case (which puts me in the rather strange position of agreeing with the ubiquitous Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds, on something), but I’m willing to grant Wright’s point.

I’m still struggling with my own questions about the instant publication associated allowed by blogging, because as Jason puts it, “the effect of immediacy is to accelerate and harden opinion.” I’m not sure I’m artciulating anything new here, but for me, reading some of the “high-profile” blogs feels a little bit like listening to talk radio: a charismatic figure stirs up people’s frustrations and fears by linking to a news article or bit of information. Then a feeding frenzy takes place, with dozens of other bloggers quickly linking to this story or adding their comments, creating the noise effect I was talking about yesterday.

Weez is a little more optimisitic about the possibility of finding a “melody” in the midst of all the noise. I don’t quite know where I’m going with these thoughts. Right now, it’s a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, a feeling that some of the same patterns that already exist in the mainstream media (a small number of powerful voices drowning out the thousands or millions of less powerful voices) are manifesting themselves in the blogosphere.

I don’t have a conclusion here, just a few thoughts that have been hammering at me over the last few days, feelings of ambivalence about the overall effects of the weblog concept of time.

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Teach Your Children Well

I keep trying to get out, but they keep pulling me back in. Just one day after swearing off high-profile blogs (more on that later), I came across a story on Atrios that will be interesting to educators at all levels.

According to the Portland (Me) Press-Herald, Gary Cole, a 7th grade public school history teacher, is suing his school district, claiming that he was barred from teaching about non-Christian religions and civilizations. The prohibitions are due to a strict curriculum supported by a “a small group of fundamentalist Christian individuals” who complained about it to the school board.

Having been raised by cool, smart (and liberal) fundamentalist Christian parents, I know that all fundamentalists aren’t inclined to be so doggedly (or even dogmatically) anti-intellectual, but reducing the schools’ curriculum into something so narrow that students have little opportunity to learn about anything other than themselves is incredibly dangerous. I’m struggling with this entry because I often find it difficult to discuss this part of my background, but this unwillingness to understand other cultures is dangerous and needs to be confronted.

Allen, of “The Right Christians,” broke the story and in the comments you can find email addresses for all of the major players.

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Blogs That Matter

I originally planned for this to be a quick “link and comment” to an academic article on blogging and the news media, but some of the ideas suggested by the article’s premise have touched a nerve.

First the story: I just came across what looks like an interesting acdemic article on the role of weblogs in bringing down Trent Lott after he praised Strom Thurmond’s segregationist policies. The article, available in PDF, was published in gnovis, a peer-reviewed communication, culture and technology journal out of Georgetown.

I haven’t had a chance to read the article just yet (so the following comments aren’t intended as a response to the author’s arguments), but I’ll try to offer a reading of it later. I do think that online communications (whether blogs or Moveon.org) were instrumental in resisting the outrageous attempts by the FCC to further deregulate the media, but I have to admit, I’m a little suspicious of the hype about blogs as political tools right now. I’m not sure that blogs can have the direct political effect that I’d originally hoped, especially given the ways in which, as Jason J points out (in a post that’s pretty ancient by blogosphere standards), the blogosphere tends to organize itself into “echo chambers.” I think the “echo chamber” dynamic holds up more in the widely-read blogs, but my original optimisim that weblogs could serve as a kind of independent media is fading fast.

Some of my pessimism could be self-critique or self-reflection after finishing my article on weblogs, but I’ve found myself feeling resistant to reading more overtly political weblogs lately. I think my lack of interest grows out of this “echo chamber” dynamic, the sense that very few political blogs are doing anything new with the medium. I think this distaste might grow out of the sense that some bloggers almost compulsively blog every story that comes across the wire, often without adding much of a reading of the story (and, quite frankly, I’d rather have my Krugman straight, no chaser).

I do think the potential of using weblogs as a means of building community is worthwhile, and perhaps the echo chamber can be used to positive effect (a la Howard Dean’s campaign blogs), but the noise is really drowning out the signal right now.

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Mission Accomplished

No, really….I just sent off my paper for the “Into the Blogosphere” collection, and not to sound smug or anything, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. I couldn’t have developed the ideas in this paper without the help, suggestions, and ideas of many of my regular (and even irregular) readers, so consider this entry a small way of saying thanks.

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Clark Kerr Dies at 92

One of the most important figures in American eductaion, Clark Kerr died yesterday at 92. I knew Kerr best as the chancellor of Berkeley in the 1960s who frequently clashed with the leaders of the Free Speech Movement, but Kerr was also instrumental in creating California’s multi-tiered university system, aided by the increasing number of students attending college on the G.I. Bill.

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[grid::brand] The Infinite Regress of Branding

I’ve been thinking about my contribution to the grid blog on the “BRAND” for a few days now. Like Anne, I had to resist the temptation of writing about Stewart Brand.

I can’t help indulging in some word play using the word brand, calling attention to the fact that “brand” not only denotes “a trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or manufacturer” but also “a mark formerly burned into the flesh of criminals…a mark of disgrace” (both definitions thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary). But perhaps that connection is a little too obvious in a post-Starbucks, post-Nike world.

I also weighed referring to an article I came across in the Georgia State University alumni magazine about a study co-authored by GSU marketing professor, Naveen Donthu, arguing that single consumers may cope with loneliness by identifying with BRANDS. The suggestion is single poeple can compensate for their feelings of isolation by connecting with a box of Tide Detergent or a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter. But the empty promise offered by these products, by te images attached to these products (the product will never satisfy the need it creates), is only part of this dynamic. Consumers identify with products for a variety of reasons (Richard Ohmann’s fantastic work, Selling Culture, is one good example among many).

All of these defintions are at least partially right. BRANDS offer something familiar and safe in an unstable and sometimes isolating world, but at the same time, the BRANDS themesleves seem to contribute to this instability (the “IKEA Boy” jokes in Fight Club capture this sentiment nicely). I’ve reflected on those arguments that BRANDS offer imaginary solutions to real problems many times.

And, yet, when I think about the BRAND another image comes to mind: an image of infinite regress, a vertiginous image that always unsettled me when I was a child: the Land O’ Lakes BRAND packaging with the Native American woman holding a package of Land O’ Lakes butter with an image of a Native American woman holding a package of Land O’ Lakes butter with an image….

When I was a kid (around six years old as I recall), I remember standing in the grocery store, staring at the packaging, and trying to see deeply into the image, trying to see how many levels of packaging I could contain inside my young brain at the same time. It was (and is) a captivating image, simultaneously pure surface and infinite depth. For whatever reason, we never bought this paricular BRAND, but I think seeing the package in the bright lights and wide ailses of the local Safeway (rather than in our cramped kitchen) is partially what gave the image its power.

I’m not sure I can say anything about the BRAND that hasn’t already been said; in fact, the BRAND, like the Land O’ Lakes packaging, seems to resist any final explanation….

Thanks to Ashley for suggesting the grid blog. Perhaps the coolest part of this project is that I now have had the opportunity to explore many other blogs that were previously unfamiliar to me.

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